Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book Review: 'Trotsky'

Paul Le Blanc's Trotsky is primarily an account of Leon Trotsky's last dozen years in exile.

Mr. Le Blanc describes Trotsky's passion in religious terms.
With a grand philosophical sweep that comprehends reality as an evolving and dynamic interplay of matter and energy, Marxism projects reality as a vibrant totality in which amazing qualitites of humanity (creative labor, community, the quest for freedom) have generated technological advances, economic surpluses and consequent inequalities that - in turn - generate struggles against oppression.
Trotsky engaged in those struggles beginning as a teenager and never wavered from the faith. Socialism was, for him, the preordained solution to all of humanity's problems, rather like the Second Coming.

So the fulfillment of Trotsky's socialist dream came in October, 1917, when at the last minute he allied himself with Lenin's Bolshevik party. A famed orator, he delivered his initial speech to his new comrades, rousing them to paroxysms of revolutionary fervor and closing with this peroration:
Let this vote of yours be your vow - with all your strength and at any sacrifice to support the Soviet that has taken on itself the glorious burden of bringing to a conclusion the victory of the revolution and of giving land, bread and peace!
Of course it was a complete lie. The peasants never got any land. Instead they were wiped out. As for bread, the Russian living standard declined from Day One of the revolution and never, ever caught up to that of the capitalist West.

And peace? Trotsky himself became the Secretary of War leading the Red Army to eventual victory, but at enormous cost. Gone was the heroic language. Instead he used threats typical of a psychopath.
I give warning that if any unit retreats without orders, the first to be shot down will be the commissar [Communist political director] of the unit, and next the [military] commander.
Perhaps because he lacked political support Trotsky pursued the war with utmost brutality, as Mr. Le Blanc describes.
In the name of defending the Revolution, a terrible violence was justified, which included the brutal repression of the peasants who were simply defending their crops from confiscation, and of the angry sailors and workers who revolted at the Kronstadt naval base outside Petrograd, traditionally a centre of pro-Bolshevik strength.
 Lenin, no fan of political violence, was taken aback.
...Trotsky particularly, as the supreme commander of the Red Army, developed a style that even Lenin - quite capable of pitiless authoritarian rhetoric - concluded was excessively 'administrative'.
"Administrative" is an odd euphemism for mass murder. But Trotsky ran with it. Subsequently his primary accusation against the Stalinist regime was that they were "bureaucratic", as if the slaughter of 40 million people could be justified if only there'd been less paperwork involved.

However unintentionally, Mr. Le Blanc depicts his subject as a womanizing psychopath. (You'll have to read between the lines to deduce the womanizing, but I'll stand by the claim.) Only when he was cast into exile, beginning in 1928, did he adopt the persona of the cuddly pig from George Orwell's Animal Farm.

While in exile Trotsky worked on three major projects. The first was his magisterial trilogy, The History of the Russian Revolution, which will be read for many generations to come. (I read the one-volume edition back when I was in college, 40 years ago.) The man was a literary genius.

The second project was an analysis of the Stalinist "degeneration" of the Soviet Union. Loathe to call the 1917 Revolution a failure, Trotsky insisted to the end that something fundamental had changed. However deformed and "bureaucratized", in the USSR workers owned the means of production, representing a major leap forward for humanity. I believe the Socialist Workers Party still subscribes to this theory, even today.

The reasons Trotsky gives for the degeneration of the USSR make no sense, and it's hard to take them seriously. Mr. Le Blanc describes them succinctly.
'When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line,' Trotsky explained. This led to the next link. 'When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order.' This simple example, he argued, 'is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It "knows" who is to get something and who has to wait.'
Unlike in backward Russia, Trotsky maintained, in Germany, England, and America there are no shortages and therefore no policeman is necessary. That's why "bureaucracy" uniquely took hold in Russia.

But this makes not even simple-minded economic sense. There is no country on earth--not even the United States--where there are no shortages. There aren't enough Mercedes Benz to go around. Even the most casual acquaintance with Adam Smith reveals how market prices clear when supply meets demand. The "bureaucracy" arises because central planners stick themselves between suppliers and consumers, destroying the market and creating huge inefficiencies and distortions. It has nothing to do with the relative poverty of Russia.

Trotsky obviously knew nothing about economics. There is no evidence that he had even heard of his great contemporary, John Maynard Keynes. He completely misunderstood the Great Depression and the causes of World War II, leading (as Mr. Le Blanc points out) to totally wrong predictions about the postwar era.

Trotsky's third project was the establishment of the Fourth International. The First International was founded by Marx & Engels; the Second International, known for social democracy, was led by the great German socialist, Karl Kautsky. Lenin established the revolutionary Third International. The Trotskyist, Fourth International arose in response to Stalin.

The project has been an abysmal failure. At no time and in no place has Trotskyism succeeded as a viable political movement. In consequence the International has splintered. Indeed, we could number the various iterations like they do software versions: International numbers, 4.1, 4.2, 4.2.1, 4.2.1a, etc. It's a farce.

So Trotsky kept the dream alive, surrounded by his groupies (disproportionately female) in his hideout in Mexico. But it takes a psychopath to know one, and Stalin couldn't sleep at night knowing that his charismatic, intelligent, ruthless rival was still alive. Live by the sword; die by the ice-pick.

I think Leon Trotsky failed at his life's ambition. He only got to spend a few years as a mass murderer--his true calling. His efforts to denigrate his rival come across as self-serving and incredible. The Fourth International is a joke. Only his History will survive as an enduring legacy.

But even that will pale. Trotsky thought that the Russian Revolution was the turning point in World history, rather like the birth of Christ. And for a few years it seemed that way. But now, a quarter Century after the demise of the USSR, the event looks more like a bad dream. Russia has been ruined by 1917: its culture, literature, population, and economy irreparably destroyed. If people recall 1917 today it will be as what not to do.

Goodbye Trotsky.

Mr. Le Blanc's book is well-written, nicely edited, and appropriately priced. The designers of the Kindle edition deserve especial praise (even though a few of the pictures are missing). If despite my advice you're still interested in Leon Trotsky, then this book is highly recommended.

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